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The traditional workplace revisited

How can lawyers and law firms adjust to the changing workplace? In our June/July issue, we explore how work is changing for lawyers as well as their clients. For lawyers who see themselves as technical experts providing solutions for employers to impose from above, the workplace can seem increasingly riddled with risk and conflict, where the traditional solutions no longer work.

One of the biggest changes that the workplace has undergone has been the entry of women. While women are still underrepresented in many workplaces — especially in the higher ranks — things are moving in a positive direction. With this positive change, though, come challenges, and nowhere is this more evident than in how sexual harassment is resolved.

Traditionally, harassment was ignored or denied, and this is still the case in many workplaces. As our story on sexual harassment shows, while 94 per cent of Canadian executives believe that sexual harassment is not a problem at their company, half of Canadian women say they have been subjected to sexual harassment at work. The mismatch is causing major problems for employers across a wide range of industries and giving labour and employment lawyers a lot of billable time to resolve individual disputes. While most of these senior executives may honestly believe their workplace is free of harassment, their employees are telling a different story.

What is to be done? Traditionally, when a harassment problem was actually acknowledged, the adversarial approach was the proposed solution. As women know only too well, though, this often resulted in a “he said, she said” situation and no one would win. One of the interesting solutions that has emerged recently is what is called “bystander training.” This kind of training empowers individuals to recognize inappropriate conduct and trains them to intervene, sometimes discreetly and diplomatically and other times more assertively. While complaints may increase when sexual harassment becomes everyone’s business, potential solutions become more evident as well.

This more communitarian approach highlights a key skill that lawyers will need to have in the changing workplace. Christiane Saad, who trains lawyers as part of the Law Practice Program at the University of Ottawa, explains in her column that lawyers increasingly need to be connected to their communities. “A team of lawyers,” she says, should “be from diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences, have a deep knowledge and understanding of challenges and cultural lenses, maintain strong relationships with key local and regional authorities and grasp their mentality to provide their clients with access to adaptive and innovative legal intelligence.”

  As the workplace evolves and more women and other groups are better represented throughout, the traditional approach to resolving disputes is clearly not working. For those lawyers advising in this area, an understanding of the workplace community is key. While workers may be the source of the problems, they can also provide the solution. Don’t let tradition get in the way of that.